The plan U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita, (R-Indiana), has devised to cut back free and subsidized meals for poor school children reminds me of an old and cruel joke.
The joke goes like this.
A scientist who wanted to prove a point started experimenting with a frog. The scientist cut off one of the frog's legs and yelled, "Jump!"
The frog jumped.
The scientist made a note.
The scientist lopped off another leg and yelled again. Once more, the frog jumped.
The scientist made another note.
Another leg came off. Somehow the frog jumped. Another note.
The scientist took off the last leg and yelled, "Jump!" The frog just sat there.
The scientist wrote down his conclusion:
"The frog no longer can hear."RELATED: No Free Lunch in Indiana
Rokita's plan to cut back on meals for poor kids springs from two impulses.
The first is a desire to attack the federal government's debt. Rokita says his approach could produce $300 million in savings.
The second comes from the ongoing campaign to "reform" education – largely by playing financial games with the ways we fund schools by redirecting taxpayer dollars to private or religious schools.
We'll deal with this second impulse first.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about our education wars is that most of the research now indicates how truly pointless they are.
While we argue and argue and argue about vouchers and charters and other questions that increasingly matter only to rabid partisans, entrenched ideologues and the increasing number of self-proclaimed education experts who live on fat tax-funded contracts, the research shows us something else.
The ways we can make the greatest gains in educational performance – and, down the line, in increased productivity – among our young people involve two things.
The first is starting the educational process earlier when young brains are ready to soak up knowledge at a phenomenal rate. The opportunity costs for not aggressively funding and establishing strong preschool programs are staggering.
The second is that we need to limit as much as we can the adverse childhood experiences – abuse, neglect, divorce of parents, poverty and, yes, hunger – that delay intellectual, emotional and psychological development. The costs of not dealing with those issues also are crushing, both in terms of lost productivity and human tragedy.
But both of these solutions would call for a greater, rather than a smaller, public investment in education.
That brings us to the concern about the debt, about which Rokita and other conservatives do a great deal of public hand-wringing.
The federal debt stands at roughly $19 trillion now. Between $13 trillion and $14 trillion of that debt wouldn't exist if Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush had balanced budgets when they were in office.
They didn't because doing so would have required them either to raise taxes, particularly on the wealthy, or cut back on military spending and adventurism. Either option would have required asking some sacrifice or self-discipline from the well-heeled. That was not appealing.
Conservatives, it seems, do believe in free lunches – just not for poor kids.
The issue with the debt is less the size of it than what we get in return for spending the borrowed funds. Some of the greatest periods of economic growth – the period after World War II, for example – have occurred when the ratio of our federal debt to our gross domestic growth was at its greatest.
The reason is that we spent a great deal of that money educating people through the GI Bill and creating a federal transportation system that made growth possible. We reap the benefits of that public investment to this day.
Perhaps it is because he understood this fundamental truth that an obscure Republican by the name of Abraham Lincoln began his political career by calling for massive government investment in improvements that would make it easier for what he called the common people to build better lives for themselves.
Perhaps that is also why the bipartisan National Governors Association, the School Nutrition Association and just about everyone who is not a Republican member of Congress has come out in opposition to Rokita's bill.
It didn't matter.
The bill moved out of committee on a partisan vote.
It appears that it's not just frogs with no legs who have trouble hearing.